A former deputy who told authorities last year that he took thousands of dollars in bribes to smuggle cellphones into Orleans Parish Prison has been indicted on felony charges.
Terry W. Savage, who resigned from the Sheriff’s Office in March 2014, has been charged with malfeasance in office and conspiring to introduce contraband into OPP. He remains jailed in lieu of $150,000 bail.
Savage, 56, of Gretna, was not taken into custody until late June of this year, even though court records show he confessed to the long-running scheme shortly after investigators uncovered a sizable cache of cellphones at the jail in early 2014.
The discovery, made during a series of shakedowns, came not long before Sheriff Marlin Gusman faced off against former Sheriff Charles Foti in a runoff election, and the Sheriff’s Office repeatedly refused at the time to discuss Savage’s abrupt departure.
The investigation focused on cellphones found on at least three tiers of the jail’s Conchetta building, a detention facility on Tulane Avenue that is being shuttered with the opening this week of a new $150 million jail. A separate smuggling scandal last year involving a female deputy who had fallen in love with an inmate happened inside the same building.
Savage was quickly identified as a suspect in the case because at least one of the discovered cellphones contained his personal phone number.
Savage initially told investigators that he had given his number to one inmate so they might “go fishing when he got out of jail,” Deputy Johnathan Griffin Sr. wrote in an arrest warrant. But he later “admitted to the allegations against him,” the warrant says, “stating that he had brought contraband in over 10 times.” The deputy said he would receive $400 cash “each time” from a woman he would meet at a gas station.
Savage’s defense attorney, Hannah Lommers-Johnson, has asked a judge to suppress the confession, claiming that it was elicited in violation of Savage’s right to counsel and without the deputy having been advised of his right to remain silent. Savage refused to speak with The New Orleans Advocate last year.
A spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro declined to comment on the length of time it took prosecutors to charge Savage. The grand jury indicted the former deputy June 26.
The charges against Savage are reminiscent of the case of Tyrell Sutherland, a young deputy who pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court last year to smuggling cellphones and marijuana to federal inmates at OPP. Sutherland, who was fatally shot in an apparent mugging several months after he received a sentence of probation, had accepted hundreds of dollars in bribes at a Wendy’s restaurant in Metairie.
Cellphones behind bars allow inmates to circumvent the jail’s closely monitored telephone system to contact victims and potentially try to influence or intimidate witnesses. In 2009, for instance, a jailed associate of New Orleans crime lord Telly Hankton used a smuggled cellphone at OPP to order the execution of a key witness, authorities said.
“In many cases, (inmates) will talk (on the phone) about their crimes and their involvement in the crimes. They’re essentially giving us confessions,” Cannizzaro said last year. “If they have a cellphone in that jail, then they don’t have to use the land line. I don’t hear what’s going on.”
Like many other jails, OPP has struggled to stanch the flow of contraband. A team of court-appointed experts tasked with monitoring the jail’s conditions reported this month that at least 22 contraband “incidents” were recorded at the jail between Jan. 1 and July 31. Homemade knives, or shanks, are among the items often found during searches of housing tiers.
Earlier this year, another former deputy, Rubin Robertson, was charged with smuggling marijuana and tobacco to members of a street gang at OPP.
“There is limited effort (at OPP) to determine the source of the contraband and remediate the danger,” the experts wrote. “While there are inspections of housing units, there is no indication that there are consistent standards of what is expected, or that changes are made to the facilities as a result of the inspection findings.”
The new 1,438-bed jail that opened this week is equipped with body-scanning devices that the Sheriff’s Office hopes will prevent inmates and deputies from smuggling in contraband.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.